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N.H. House Backs Bill To Double State Aid to Districts

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The New Hampshire House has approved a bill that would more than double the amount of aid the state currently provides to school districts.

The legislation, passed on a 184-to-170 vote this month, calls for fully funding the state's school-aid-distribution formula.

Although the Senate is also expected to pass the bill, it faces a veto threat from Gov. Steve Merrill.

The funding formula, named for John Augenblick, a Denver-based school-finance consultant who helped devise it, was created in 1985 in an attempt to ease fiscal disparities across district lines in a state where local property taxes have been the predominant source of school revenues.

"The formula, we think, would be an adequate formula were it to be funded,'' asserted Rep. Bert F. Teague, who backed the measure. "But it has never been fully funded.''

Court Backs State Duty

The intensifying debate over school finance in the Granite State has been fueled by a state supreme court ruling that New Hampshire has an obligation to fund public education.

In its decision late last year, the court upheld a lawsuit filed by five low-wealth districts, which contended that the state fails to provide adequate and equitable funding for the public schools. (See Education Week, Jan. 12, 1994.)

New Hampshire ranks last among the states in the percentage of funds it provides to public schools, supplying only about 7 percent of education spending.

The House's decision is "tremendous,'' said Richard H. Goodman, the director of the Center for Educational Field Services at the University of New Hampshire. "It's the first time since [former Gov.] John Sununu signed the Augenblick bill into law in 1985 that the House has voted to fully fund it.''

Noting the huge size of the New Hampshire House--with 398 members, it is by far the largest state legislative body--Mr. Goodman said the vote shows "strong grassroots support for substantially increasing state aid to education.''

The House currently has 261 Republicans, 136 Democrats, and one Independent. The partisan ratio is much closer, however, in the Senate, where there are 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats.

'An Empty Promise'

If the measure becomes law, it would pump an additional $60 million into the state's foundation-aid support for K-12 education, beginning in fiscal 1996, and somewhat larger amounts in subsequent years.

The state currently supplies about $47 million in foundation aid.

But observers suggest that there will probably not be enough votes to override Governor Merrill's threatened veto.

The House vote "represents tax- and-spend legislators sending an empty promise to the schoolchildren of New Hampshire,'' the Republican Governor said in a statement. "There is no mechanism to either raise taxes or cut other programs in this bill, and that's precisely what will need to be done.''

Other opponents agreed.

"We have spent enough money on education without adding more,'' Rep. Frances L. Riley said.

Sen. George A. Lovejoy said he also intends to vote against the bill. "I think it's a piece of feel-good legislation in the House that wasn't accompanied by the responsible action of telling how to fund it,'' he charged.

In terms of average per-pupil funding, Senator Lovejoy said, New Hampshire compares favorably with other states. New Hampshire's average per-pupil spending in the 1992-93 school year was $4,993, ranking it ahead of more than half the states.

Average Cloaks Disparities

But Sen. Susan McLane, who supports the measure, contended that the state spending average cloaks disparities between districts, with property-poor districts taxing themselves at seven times the rate of rich districts and still lacking adequate resources.

In Franklin, she said, one school recently sent a notice home saying it could no longer provide students with pencils and paper. Yet, at the same time, a school in Jackson has a computer on the desk of every 5th grader.

"Then you average that out and say, 'We're fine,''' she said. "It's like a guy standing in a bucket of ice water and a bucket of hot water saying, 'On the average, I'm comfortable.'''

Per-pupil costs range from a low of $3,266 in Chichester to a high of $8,848 in Waterville Valley.

Even if the bill avoids or survives a veto, Rep. Douglas E. Hall, a supporter of the bill, pointed out, the real test would not come until the fiscal 1996 budget process begins in January 1995. At that point, the legislature can opt to suspend certain laws when setting the new budget.

"This is, in some ways, a measure to run around and say, 'I support more funding for education' without having to come up with any money,'' Mr. Hall said.

"The more honest and straightforward way would have been to make it apply immediately,'' he added. "Then, we would have had to come up immediately with the $60 million, but no one wanted to suggest where that would come from.''

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